BY NATHANIEL WEISBERG
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition, the most right-wing and religiously conservative in Israel’s history, has proposed a judicial overhaul that would place unchecked power in the hands of the executive, remove protections afforded to individuals and minorities, and deepen the divisions in an already fractured society. In broad terms, the rupture in Israeli society has divided people into two camps: those who want a more secular and pluralist state and those with a more religious and Jewish nationalist vision.
I sympathize with my peers in Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), who are fighting against this anti-Palestinian vision for Israel. However, I strongly disagree with their advocacy of an illiberal suspension of Pitzer College’s study abroad program at the University of Haifa.
SJP’s pressure to end Pitzer’s participation in this program is part of the larger Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to punish Israel to incite political change. What is behind the spread of the academic boycott movement? The typical explanation is that Israel’s policies, particularly its blockade of Gaza, its attacks on Hamas, and its settlements in the West Bank, have inspired retaliatory action by American students and academics.
Boycott advocates liken modern-day Israel to South African Apartheid. If boycotts, divestment, and other economic sanctions helped to end Apartheid, the same tactics can work to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories – so goes the argument.
But let us ask a simple question: on whom would a boycott put pressure? The obvious answer is Israeli institutions of higher education, the ostensible targets of the boycott. But that answer unveils the confused logic of this SJP effort. Israeli universities, like American ones, are overwhelmingly liberal and opposed to the Netanyahu government. An analogy would be trying to put pressure on the Trump Administration by boycotting Pitzer. An academic boycott is the least effective of weapons. It punishes SJP’s natural allies while leaving the intended target unaffected.
It would also prevent American students opposed to Israeli government policies from seeing and learning about their impact in person. As Oona Eisenstadt, Professor of Jewish and Religious Studies at Pomona, put it during a Salvatori Center lunch discussion last week – “Can you think of a better opportunity for 5C students interested in Israel/Palestine relations than a semester at Haifa University?” She’s right. The program is an opportunity in which students can travel to the West Bank and learn first-hand from Palestinians about their experiences while attending the most diverse school in the Middle East. The student body at Haifa is more than 40 percent Arab.
Among Pitzer’s core values is the promotion of intercultural understanding. Central to this is its robust study abroad program that, in the words of former Pitzer President Melvin Oliver, “enables students to reach their own conclusions about the world’s most vexing challenges through on-the-ground, face-to-face experience.”
In other words, where can students get the richest understanding of the conflict in Palestine? 6th Street or the Gaza Strip?
There is also an issue of consistency and double-standards. Pitzer’s study abroad program sponsors students to travel to places that include Kunming, China, and Beirut, Lebanon. China is among the most egregious violators of human rights in the world, a non-democracy without basic rights for its citizens, charged with genocide against the Uighur minority and terrible oppression in Tibet. According to Amnesty International, Lebanon discriminates against women, migrants, and LGBTQ+ people.
Certainly, Pitzer’s study abroad programs in those countries do not amount to endorsements of the human rights violations of their respective ruling regimes. Just as those programs are not endorsements, the banning of a study abroad program in Israel is not an meaningful act of criticism, or an effective approach to changing government policies in Israel. It’s a symbolic posture that would accomplish nothing other than increasing our own ignorance of what’s really happening there.